Talking Dirty with The Accidental Agronomist - Take One

The Homesteader Edition

After writing about agronomy for a year, I decided I would do something different.

Even though I have gained two more chins due to the number of prescription drugs I have been on for the past six months and my complete lack of technical skills, I decided I would start doing video interviews with all types of people either directly or indirectly involved in agriculture.

Nothing scripted or even really edited, just a one on one conversation about agronomy.

For the first interview, I sat down with a friend I’ve known for a while now to get her take on what agronomy means to her as a homesteader and let her ask a question or two as well.

Meet Diane, a backyard gardening homesteader from somewhere in Pennsylvania.

Ag 101 Week 47

Trace Minerals


Would you believe after this post there are only five weeks left in the Ag 101 52 Weeks of Agronomy Series!

Since I’ve started writing, a lot has happened not only professionally but personally as well. Last year I came on the speaking scene pretty strong presenting at four fairly significant conferences. This year I have had seven proposals rejected for silly reasons like they didn’t like my title or they felt I was redundant. Funny thing is, I said the title was not set in stone and I had never spoken at that particular conference before.  I’ve been called everything from a charlatan to a rock star. It has been brought to my attention that I should ask my family to purchase Grammarly for me as a Christmas gift. Even through all of that, I gained readers all over the world, doubled my email list, recorded a couple podcasts, presented for gardening clubs, and kept writing. Last but not least, I can now say I have clients in six states, and the consulting side of my business is steadily growing.

I’ve also gained a new appreciation for my health and hope to keep up with the small but necessary steps to get past some challenges I’ve had. I have completely given up coffee, alcohol, refined sugars, and processed foods along with some other changes without harming anyone in the process.

Moreover, that leads me to this week’s topic.

Trace Minerals- Small but necessary elements that are critical for plant health.

Roles trace minerals play in plant health-

The amount of trace minerals in soil is related to the parent material and the amending and fertilizing history

Trace minerals are often referred to as micronutrients because they are required in relatively small amounts by plants and the people and animals consuming them

It has been up to debate has how nutrients such as sulfur are viewed. For the sake of this post, I’m going to cover it.

Trace minerals have been linked to the following functions

Sulfur (S) – Sulfur is needed to manufacture chlorophyll and the synthesis of nitrogen. It also encourages overall plant growth and vigor.

Boron (B) – Boron aids in cellular growth and helps to regulate the uptake of nutrients. It is essential for water absorption and the translocation of sugars. Boron and zinc have been linked to aiding in the vegetative and reproductive stages of berry development.

Copper (Cu) – Copper works to help plants metabolize nitrogen and is essential for iron utilization. It has been linked to bacterial and fungal suppression as well.

Iron (Fe) – Iron assists in the creation of chlorophyll and protein synthesis

Manganese (Mn) - Manganese is known as an activator for several enzymes responsible for plant metabolism as well as nitrogen transformation. 

Molybdenum (Mo) – Molybdenum plays several critical roles in a plants ability to metabolize nitrogen.

Zinc (Zn) – Zinc is required in seed production. It has also been linked to aiding the vegetative and reproductive phases in berry development.

Potential sources of organic inputs for trace minerals


Kelp can be used as a liquid concentrate, powder, or meal. It is a powerhouse of trace minerals and plant growth stimulating hormones. If I were reduced to recommending one product kelp would be it. That being said you still need to use it judiciously as not to decrease its efficacy


An excellent source of potassium and trace minerals along with built-in soil conditioning properties.


Azomite is a hydrated sodium calcium aluminosilicate broad-spectrum soil remineralizing product


Raw aragonite brings with is biology from the sea, acting as a built-in inoculant as well as containing several trace minerals

Redmond Salt-

Redmond salt is an unrefined product containing more than 60 naturally occurring minerals

Chelated liquid forms-

This group of products can be mineral specific. The most common that I have worked with are Baicor Liquids. Care should be taken that your plants show signs of apparent deficiencies through tissue testing before applying to determine necessity and rates


Ag 101 Week 22

I Got Nothing...

I'm not going to lie, coming up with a topic for this week has been challenging. I usually get inspiration from things I've been doing or things I've been questioned about in the previous week. But these past couple weeks have been doozies. 

I have dealt with everything from gray mold on strawberries, hail damage on lettuce, making fertilizer recommendations, nailing down seeding rates, explaining my opinion on sap and Brix testing, etc. I've been to pasture walks and spoke for the Williamsport Herb Guild. I've touched base with clients and needless to say I came up with lots of topics and still no real inspiration as to exactly what to write about.  

To cap off the week, I spent 4 hours updating the terms, conditions, and privacy policy for the website to be in compliance with the GDPR.  Don't ask me what that stands for, I'm not good with acronyms or military time. All I know is feel free to stop reading at any point, feel free to unsubscribe at any point, feel free to not deal with me at any point. I will not be offended, TRUST ME! If you do stay, you will hear some ranting and you will wear down your red pen fixing typos. But hopefully, you will also get at least one piece of something that will help you to be the best farmer, grower, or producer you want to be.

So, when it came to writing a post, I was just not feeling it...

Then while I was taking pictures of my peonies after I had told my husband I was writing, I thought "Give them something useful. Something practical. Something to help them through the season." Then they can unsubscribe to go look for a highly trained world-renowned agronomist. Just kidding. 

Well-fed plants are usually less susceptible to soil-borne organisms than are poorly nourished plants. Good fertility may so enhance the resistance of the (host)plant that the parasite can not successfully attack the roots.
— U.S Dept. of Agriculture 1957 Yearbook

It can be said that having a well-nurished plant will deter insect and other disease issues as well.

Earlier this week I shared a liquid fertilizer program for strawberries. You can go to this link and sign up for the newsletter to get a printable copy.

This year growers I work with have had success in high tunnels, while those growing outside have been challenged. The weather is a dominant factor for the challenges. Sometimes all we can do is mitigate the best we can, looking ahead to the next crop.

So that leads me to give you some suggestions of things you can have on hand to help grow through any up and coming challenges that might be on the horizon. I've also tried to make them things that could be readily available at any home and garden or farm store. 

Kelp Meal/Kelp Liquid

Anyone that has been around me for five minutes knows I like kelp. It is effective and multi-purposeful. 

Kelp is not curative, however, it can be used to help boost a plant's immune system helping it to get through periods of stress. It has growth simulant hormones called cytokinins, gibberellins, and auxins that encourage cell health, strength, and growth. 

It has insect repellant properties due to the fact it has iodine which has been shown to deter sucking and piercing insects. I do caution that it is only effective if we use it judiciously. I have growers that use it in the insecticide box when planting corn. The first year the rate would be 6-8#/ac. If planting corn after corn, which is never recommended, however, sometimes practiced, the rate would need to increase to 10-15#/ac. 

Just as other chemistries, its overuse can diminish its efficacy. 

That being said, I add 1-2oz of liquid kelp per gallon to any irrigation water I'm using in my containers and vegetable garden. I generally water with it every 7-10 depending on rain amounts, which equals out to be roughly every other time I water.  

The meal can be steeped in water/vinegar to make the liquid, leaving you with the meal to use as an amendment and the liquid to water with.

For example:

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup vinegar

1 cup kelp meal

Let steep for several days, drain off the liquid and add 1-2oz. per gallon of water and apply every 7-10 days or as needed.

The meal can be used at the time of planting or as a side dress throughout the growing season. 

Aragonite/Oyster Shell

Aragonite can be harder to find, but well worth the effort. Oyster shell would be a good substitute. Both are an excellent source of calcium and can be used dry or steeped in vinegar.  This could be good for tomatoes when they are lacking calcium showing signs of Blossom End Root(BER). BER is really not a calcium issue but an irrigation one. However, a quick readily available calcium application can help the plant get through it and keep producing. I think I sense another idea to write about...

For example:

1 cup aragonite/oyster shell

1 cup vinegar

Let steep for several days, drain off the liquid and add 1-2oz. per gallon of water and apply every 7-10 days or as needed.

5% - 10%Vinegar

This has a multitude of uses. You can use it in liquid fertilizer blends to stabilize a mix and help balance the pH. It can be a good liquid to use an as extractant, like with kelp meal and aragonite. If used appropriately it will have a nominal effect on water pH but not to a level that would be detrimental. However, always use caution and test pH of any irrigation system and soil regularly.

Liquid Fish

There are several formulations on the market. I look for one that has sulfate of potash (SOP) and kelp in it.  If you can find one with sodium nitrate, then that is an added bonus. It is a great stand-alone fertilizer however, I have growers using it in the following mix and see great results.

Liquid Fish Blend:

1-2 gallon liquid fish

1-2 quart liquid kelp

1 pint 5-10% Vinegar

5 pounds sugar or 1-3 oz. molasses per gallon(optional, but recommended)

Add 1-2oz. per gallon of water and apply 1-2 times during the growing season dependant on the crop and soil tests. 

Another blend that is easy to mix yet effective is 

Fish/Kelp Blend:

1/2 Fish Fertilizer

1/2 Liquid Kelp

Add 1-2 oz. per gallon of water and apply every 7-10 days, or as needed. 

This is great for transplanting or times of stress, fertilizing and stimulating growth at the same time. 

As always soil and tissue testing are recommended before implementing any type of program. These are merely suggestions and not an exhausted list of things you could potentially have on hand. If you are experiencing challenges, a call to your local extension office or an agronomist might be necessary before making any fertilizer/amendment applications as well.

*Please take cation as to the time of day you apply liquids when using as a fertilizer, early morning is optimal, or in the evening. 

Once I have recovered from the whole GDPR thing, I'll put together a PDF with the information in this post. At that time you will be asked to subscribe to my newsletter to get it. Then, once you have done that and gotten your free printable fertilizer recipe PDF you can unsubscribe, no hard feelings. 

As always, if you have questions, don't hesitate to ask. Better yet send pictures and we can talk through some issues you might be having. 

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Ag 101 Week 20

I Only Eat Cheesecake


 Let me explain.

I have an available supply. The market down the road has the best in town, and sometimes the market has it on sale. I can stock up when that is the case. I can freeze it so I will never run out. I always have it on hand. I have been able to maintain a somewhat healthy weight while on my cheesecake only diet. Well, sort of. A healthy weight is a relative term. As long as I exercise and still fit in my sweatpants, that’s fine with me. I like my sweatpants. So far, my health is reasonably good while on my cheesecake only diet. I realize that eventually there is the potential for me to have some nutrient or vitamin deficiencies, but so far so good. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it, right? I’ll know when I’m dead there is a problem.

Sounds a bit dramatic and crazy, right?

That’s what I think when a grower tells me they only use compost. Be upset with me, tell me that it’s working just fine for you, justify it all you want but that is how you are feeding your soil and your plants. You are feeding them a nutritionally imbalanced diet that even though you are intensely rotating crops things will eventually catch up with you. In reality, you are not feeding them; you are amending the soil. You are changing the physical characteristics of the soil while ignoring the nutritional needs of the crop because compost is an amendment, not a fertilizer. 

Let me ask you a question. Would you eat like that?

There seems to be a more significant number of farms starting in the business. A farm up the road has been composting for several years, another in the opposite direction is now offering its own brand of compost, and local municipalities in the area have started some windrows of their own. Compost business has started as a means to handle wastes from other industries. It is available year-round and at what seems to be a reasonable price, sometimes being free for the taking. 

Let’s look at an average analysis of your garden variety compost. Guess what; there is no average. First, compost companies source material from a variety of places. Companies in our area use mushroom waste, or food waste, some paper-based products, some use manures, some use peat or sphagnum moss, or combinations of all of the previously listed. These inconsistencies in materials and how long it is composted lead to the variabilities in nutrient analysis. Second, the nutrient analysis is negligible due to the fact nutrients are diminished as the materials are decomposed. It is an inevitable part of the process, leaving you with an amendment intended for adding organic matter and microbes. 

I am not bashing the industry.  A vendor questioned me after a presentation about this very subject, and they have yet to get the information I asked for. I wanted analysis and data showing me what’s in their compost. That’s it, that is all I asked for. What I got were marketing talking points that I later saw on their website. That’s all you see from any of them. I’m not singling out any one company or manufacturer. They are all doing the same thing. Go to the US Composting Councils’ Website. You get a lot of marketing points, but I had to spend an hour digging for some hard-core research, and it turned up useless for any grower I’m working with.

Do your due diligence and look into the source of the compost you are considering. Better yet source it from a reputable manufacturer or farmer that is willing to disclose what is in it and what the analysis is, making sure a reputable lab did it.

Composting your food and lawn waste is a great idea, however, to be done successfully it can be labor-intensive and time-consuming. The volume at which you need to compost can be prohibitive as well.  If applying 1 inch of compost on a 30X30 garden that is almost equivalent to 2.8 cubic yards. You would need anywhere from two to three times that volume in initial waste materials to produce that.  I’ve worked with several farmers that have tried to compost and farm and cannot find enough time to do either the justice it deserves.

You may be wondering how well the cheesecake diet works-

I have personally tried the cheesecake only diet, and I’m here to tell you it did not turn out well for me. I gained 75 pounds, and I ended up back in my fat pants. I am tired and cranky most of the time unless I am medicating with coffee or another form of therapeutic beverage. I am on the verge of exploding if I do not make changes. I have radically amended my physical characteristics while ignoring any nutritional needs I have. I’m on the brink of a health crisis if I don’t change.

What do I need to do to make changes-

Over the past few weeks, I have decided to get back to eating a balanced diet that consists of healthy proteins, fats, vegetables, and fruits. I have given up one therapeutic beverage except for coffee. My fern leaf peony and coffee will be buried with me. I am exercising on a regular basis and getting my family involved. As much as I love cheesecake, I have had to eat a more balanced diet. I have to find a balance between changing my physical characteristics and my nutritional needs using exercise and food.

Guess what – Your soil and plants need a balanced diet as well.

Your soil and plants will eventually send out signals just like what happened to me. They will not end up in their fat pants, but they will be tired and cranky. Yields will start to go down, plants will start and look unhealthy while being subjected to higher insect and disease pressure. An unhealthy plant is an open door to unwanted issues. I often hear “Well I rotate, and that ensures the plants are getting what they need.” You do have a point, but if you rotate into a crop that wants a nutrient that isn’t there because you might have overlooked nutrient removal from the previous crop? Then what do you do?

Just as I have to use exercise and food to be healthy, you need to use management strategies and inputs to balance soil and plant health.

What are simple steps you can take to get off the compost only diet-

Truth, I don’t want you to kick the habit entirely. I want you to use compost for what it is best suited, and that is an excellent source of organic matter and microbes. I want you to use it when it is needed to enhance your fertility program, not be the main component of it.

-Get a soil test that includes organic matter.

A comprehensive test that includes significant nutrients N-P-K, along with trace minerals and organic matter will be the best investment to understanding what your soil needs.

-Look your farm on the soil survey website to identify your soil type.

Understanding your soil type will help you learn how to work with the soil you have.

-If using compost ask the manufacturer for a lab analysis done by a third party reputable lab.

If they can’t provide one, you have to decide if you want to take the risk or look for a reputable manufacturer that can provide a current one. Before purchasing it take a minute and smell it. Smelling it may sound odd, but how compost smells can be an indication as to how well it is broken down and how healthy it is. Just because you are working with the rotten stuff, it shouldn't smell rotten. If it has been composted adequately, it should smell fresh and earthy.


Ag 101 Week 18

Not Your Grandma's Vinegar

This time of year, I get questions ranging from how to keep things alive to how to kill them. One thing I’ve talked a lot about recently is what can farmers and gardeners use for weed control that is relatively inexpensive yet effective.

My first response always includes the obvious cultural practices including, but not limited to-

Maintaining clean fence rows and perimeters

Mow/graze in a timely manner

Cultivate on a regular schedule

Use aggressive cover crops or inter-seeding – by aggressive I mean one that grows fast

When that isn’t enough, and you need to use another alternative my first suggestion is 20% or 200grain vinegar. Just as the title said, this not your grandma’s 5-10% vinegar she uses for pickling or cleaning, but the gnarly eat through your pants kind.

For home and backyard growers

The homemade concoctions you read about, in my experience, are not sufficient even for the home/backyard grower. In my opinion, you need to ditch the dawn/salt/vinegar mix and use the more effective strength vinegar I’m going to talk about. It will save you time and effort, ultimately saving you money as well. Remember size vs. scale? If not refer back to Week 4

So, what kind of vinegar am I talking about – 20% or 200grain vinegar, commonly referred to as Ag or Food Grade. It can be purchased online or at some farm and garden type retailers.

Some points to think about when using 20% vinegar

1.     It is not a systemic herbicide, meaning it will not enter into the plant's metabolism and kill it that way. It is a burn down that may have to be applied more than once. Target younger weeds at the appropriate stage of growth for maximum efficacy.

2.     It is non-selective, it burns whatever it comes in contact with even the person applying it. Be careful and strategic when using it and don’t do it on a windy day.

3.     Make sure you cover as much surface area of the plant as possible, contact is critical.

4.     Growers I work with have found the following rates to be effective

                 For tank mixing 8-10 gallons/acre with as little water as possible

                 For backpack and hand sprayers 50/50 vinegar & water

5.     The general rule of thumb

If spraying to kill spray during the hottest part of the day when the sun is the most intense.

There are several other products on the market for the chemical free, natural, or certified organic grower. They are usually oiled based and have been found useful as well. One of the most common that I have worked with is Nature’s Avenger. For several years I recommended that you dilute it with vinegar. After talking with a field rep from Nature’s Avenger, they have found there is no increased efficacy of either the vinegar or their product using it that way.

My suggestion to a grower is to start with a single chemistry first while maintaining good cultural practices. If weed pressure escalates and cannot be efficiently controlled with one chemistry instead of mixing products, alternate spraying with a different one.

Have questions – don’t hesitate to ask

Ag 101 Week 16

Soil Doesn’t Follow Trends


These past few weeks have been busy as I’m sure most of you are experiencing too. Mine has been filled with meetings, conferences, presentations, farm visits, homeschool activities, and trying to fit in planting somethings in my garden.

As I’ve talked to what feels like hundreds of people recently, there has been one reoccurring theme I have been brought back to


Soil Doesn’t Follow Trends Markets Do


So, what exactly do I mean.

Soil is a dynamic highly evolved ecosystem that in spite of all the good or bad we do, it has a single mission to be in a state of constant growth. It is home to organisms that are continually going through every stage of life in order to provide life to the plants that grow in it.

1.     It has no idea what type of cropping system or gardening method you choose to use this year. It has no idea how many books you have read, conferences you have gone to, or how many speakers you have listened to telling you about farming and gardening systems.

2.    It doesn’t give a flying fig about what the latest and greatest trend in agriculture is either. It is not reading all the gardening and farming magazines touting all the benefits of the next best super go-go grow juice or the magic results you see if you apply only 500# to the acre of the best fairy dust ever.

The only thing soil wants to do is be what it was intended to be which is a healthy, resilient, and highly efficient system in which life can grow. Get out of its way and let it happen. Stop buying into one method or product that promises yields beyond your imagination and tomatoes that Instagram dreams are made of.

Am I saying turn your back to all the progress we have made with science and technology-NO!

In my perfect world, in which I believe Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton are genuinely best friends and platonic despite Islands in The Stream, I want growers, farmers, gardeners to-

Start paying attention to the soil they have and work with it to apply science and technology in practical ways to harness its natural abilities.

Ag 101 Week 4

Size Vs. Scale

I have great news, for once size doesn’t matter!

Far too often I talk with farmer/growers, and they're concerned with how many acres they are farming and at what point they consider themselves an actual farmer. Get over it. What matters is that you can manage the scale at which you are operating and is it profitable for you.

When I got back into consulting, I was intimidated by your average corn/soybean/alfalfa farm. Every time I looked at a soil test for a cornfield I panicked. I thought how can I make recommendations for a cornfield when I have only gardened for the past 15 years. Then it dawned on me; it was nothing more than a large garden. I had to get over it! Just like our daughter's horse needed to get over his fear of helicopters, lawn chairs, and ponies! 



My scale of growing had changed, but the basic principles I used to help my dad on the farm were the same I used in my backyard garden. In the case of liquid fertilizers instead of measuring in quarts or gallons per acre, I used ounces per 1000 sq. ft. The same is true for dry fertilizers, instead of 1 cup, a larger scale grower uses pounds per acre. It is all based on the scale, not the size. Yes, size is something that needs consideration when planning, however, you measure your amendments and fertilizers based on scale.

Size matters when you need to ask yourself are you willing to take on more or less work, the financial aspect, or management that will be involved.

Here are two resources I use the most for common conversions


As always you should read the label of any product you are using first.

I like Them Raw

Once again, it’s been awhile since I blogged. I’ll be honest, between life, kids, my bad attitude towards social media, compounded by the fact I hate to type, I just don’t do it as much as I should.

Since that is out of the way, I’ve been meaning to start a series of posts about several topics I was going to present on this past summer. Why I didn’t get the chance to present them is a topic for another day. 

Today I'll start with unusual edible perennials and how to use them to promote healthy soil in your garden. 

 I've grown all the plants I talk about except for one, stinging nettle. However, as soon as I get my hands on some I’m planting it.

Let’s start with Jerusalem Artichoke or Sun Choke.

Sun Choke in my garden

Sun Choke in my garden


Definitely plan ahead when deciding on a location to plant it. They are prolific and can become invasive unless managed properly by giving them adequate space and harvesting them completely unless you want them to spread. Take into consideration their height. Mine have grown to be about 4ft. Think about that when planning around shorter plants so they don’t shade them out.  

The plants are a good source of biomass to add organic matter, sometimes called green manure. Organic matter is the storage bank important for nutrient management.

Because they are a tuber they may help mitigate some compaction issues. I’m not advocating growing them to totally remediate the issue, however, using a plants growth habits can help reduce adding amendments depending on what scale you are growing on.

Sun Chokes are rich in minerals like phosphorus and potassium. If your manure heavily phosphorus is your limiting factor. That puts you in a situation where you need to add more nitrogen and potassium. Why not look to plants to help fill in some fertility gaps.

Sun Chokes can also be considered as part of a cover crop rotation, taking advantage of the remediation and nutrient advantages, the plant has. Always keeping in mind, the management limitations like pervasiveness.

Last but not least, I grow mine because I like to eat them raw. I've never had them cooked, although I've heard you can. 

Let me know if you grow Sun Chokes and how you use them. If you have any recipes, maybe I'll try them cooked...instead of raw.